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Death of a Salesman as a Modern Tragedy Essay


Death of a Salesman is a play that has come to redefine the concept of modern tragedy. The Greeks first defined dramatic tragedy, it is evident that the Greek tragedies were a profound influence on Arthur Miller. He was drawn to the Greek tragedies for their magnificent form, the symmetry.Aristotle, wrote a significant thesis on tragedy in his Poetics. His analogy was that there are four crucial elements that must be present in order to define a play as a classical tragedy. Namely, the play must incorporate poetic language; the protagonist must be a man of noble birth; he must, at a point of recognition, gain an awareness of a truth or a fault in himself; and finally, the playwright must have the ability to arouse the audiences pity and fear, and at the end of the play, to leave the audience with a sense of catharsis, and leave them not depressed, but exalted.

Challenging Aristotles judgement that a classical tragedy can only concern a protagonist with high social status, Death of a Salesman is the tragedy of the proletarian. This is vital for the political statement Miller wanted to project; he was determined to present the tragic hero as the average American, in order to highlight the fate of these anonymous Americans who supported the capitalist system blindly, placed all their hopes and dreams upon it, and then were cast aside. Willy was presented as a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash-can like the rest of them.

In this sense, Willy does not classify as a classical tragic protagonist. However, in my opinion this doesnt make his less of a tragic hero in modern society. Eric Bentley argues that Willy is too little to justify the title; but I think, like Harold Bloom, that his character is deserving of the role, even though he doesnt have the power and largeness of a king. We see within the play, in Lindas speech in Act I, Millers attempt to defend his decision to present Willy as the typical working class American.

I dont say hes a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper, Hes not the finest character that ever lived. But hes a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. Linda is discerning of her husbands worth, and is projecting the view that you dont have to be rich, or have outstanding characteristics to be significant to others, and therefore be worthy of being a tragic hero. Linda is a mouthpiece for Miller himself here.

The fact that Willy is an ordinary man, without anything that would make him stand out in a crowd, makes the tragic element of the play more poignant, because the central reason for his downfall, is his overwhelming, obsessive desire to climb the social ladder, and make a lasting impression on people, like his idol, the salesman, Dave Singleman did, remembered and loved and helped by so many different people. The fact that he fails to achieve this high status he had been craving for all of his working life creates, in my opinion, a sense of pathos, and justifies his title of tragic protagonist.

Miller stated in his essay Tragedy and the Common Man that we no longer live in an era dominated by kings and queens, and so maybe our definition of tragedy should change. Miller adapted the concept of the classical tragic protagonist to connect with modern audiences. He felt that, in the 20th century, tragedy needed an everyman that the masses could relate with, he succeeds in creating the sense that these tragic events that happened to Willy could happen to anyone. I feel that the proletarian being degraded in this way connects with todays audiences to perhaps a greater extent now, as capitalism advances across the globe. Willy embodies the key political theme of the criticism of the moral and social standards of contemporary America, and I think he is apt as a tragic protagonist.

In Depression-era America, unlike the social system in ancient Greece, I think noble characteristics can be equated with noble birth. Therefore, on balance, Willy qualifies as a tragic protagonist, because, although he is obviously not a man of higher than ordinary moral worth, high social status, or virtue, like Aristotle dictated, the essence of his dream is a noble one, and he is capable of displaying noble characteristics, the main one being the love for his family, and his desire to provide for them and make them proud. Whilst accepting there are many areas of the play where his behaviour is to be criticised, I agree with Bloom that a tragic hero must no longer be a man of high moral stature, he just needs to possess some noble qualities.

Aristotle also noted that the tragic protagonist should be an influential character. Although Willy perceives himself as influential, and in a position of power, I am vital in New England, the reality is in painful contrast to this fantasy, he earns so little he is forced to borrow money from Charley and pretend to Linda that its his wage. The fact that he is not in a position of power like classical heroes are before their fall from grace is another key reason why some critics feel that the title of tragic protagonist is not suitable. However, I feel that it could be seen as more tragic that he has never been in a position of great power from which he has been able to fall. It seems that Willys entire life has been tragic, rather than the play depicting the only tragic sequence of events in his life. I think that it is immaterial whether a tragic protagonist falls from a greater or lesser height, it is still the same concept, and ultimately leads to a tragic death, which therefore qualifies Willy as a tragic protagonist.

In a professional sense, it is painfully obvious that Willy is not an influential character. In Act II, following his demoralising encounter with Howard, where, despite his intentions for a pay rise, he is left in a much worse position, because he had been fired. Even before Howard speaks, we see that he is disinterested in him, he only glances over his shoulder as Willy appears. Despite his powerlessness in the context of business, I think Willy was influential in a different way, with his family. Throughout the play, he has the support of Linda, she more than loves him. This is showing us that her love is unconditional, and that she not only loves him, but also respects him and realises how hard he has worked to support the family, never worked a day but for your benefit. I think this influence he has over his family, Biff calls him a fine, troubled prince, is sufficient to make him a tragic protagonist, because of the fact that he was admired, few men are idolized by their children the way you are.

Aristotle dictated that the tragic protagonist must fall from grace because of a series of mistakes that arise as a result of a fatal flaw in his character. Willys flaw is his nave faith in the capitalist system, and his determination to see material wealth, and superficial qualities like looks, as the only path to success. Willys mantra that personality wins the day has no substance to it. In reality success is due to hard work and perseverance. Some critics argue that unlike Aristotelian tragic protagonists, Willy appears to possess not one, but many flaws in his character, which disqualify him as a tragic protagonist, but in my opinion, his naivety about the capitalist system is fundamental flaw, and it brought about his downfall, which complies with Aristotles definition of a tragic protagonist. This nave outlook on capitalism led to further naivety in other areas of his life, which some critics view as separate flaws. The situation spiralled out of control and his grasp of reality deteriorated, until a point where his naivety was so extreme, it caused delusions. In his advice to Biff, he contradicts himself, Be quiet, fine and serious. / Walk in with a big laugh.

Willys devastatingly blatant lack of self-knowledge also comes directly from this naivety, because he is so blinded by the prospects of the American Dream that he had all the wrong dreams. He never realised that to gain true happiness, he should have been a carpenter; he is so stubbornly faithful to the system that he cannot see what would ultimately have saved him, even my grandfather was better than a carpenter. His false pride is also linked to the weakness in his character, his naivety, because he was so caught up in capitalism, he thought he would have been admitting his failure by accepting a job at a lower level from Charley. Foolishly, he would rather have his pride intact than feel that he was perceived as a failure within the capitalist system.

Like Greek tragic heroes, I believe Willys fatal flaw is something so deep rooted it is essentially a part of his make-up. His naivety transcends his background and circumstance, his brother Ben constantly overshadowed him, and his desire to succeed was heightened by this sense of competition, and the comparison between the brothers when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out [He laughs.] And by God I was rich. The influence of his brother continued to affect him, as he imagined Ben was talking to him, and giving him advice. It is to Ben that Willy, at times, admits his feelings of low self esteem to, and how lost he feels, I still feel kind of temporary about myself, and at the end of Act II, it is Willys image of Ben in his head that encourages Willy to commit suicide, Yes, outstanding, with twenty thousand behind him. Bens success was, for Willy, proof to support all his nave theories on capitalism, like its not what you do, Ben. Its who you know and the smile on your face! and increased his desperation to achieve the American Dream. He fails to realise how unlikely it is that anyone could repeat the success of Ben who started with the clothes on his back and ended up with diamond mines, so is repeatedly bewildered by his lack of success.

Aristotle said that a tragedy must have an impending sense of inevitability of the tragic conclusion. If someone lives in a capitalist country, it is not inevitable that it will dupe them, although it is extremely difficult to avoid such an obtrusive system. For a man with the mentality of Willy, capitalism is his only plausible dream. Therefore in my opinion he does qualify as a tragic protagonist, as we can see from the beginning the tragic outcome, his deteriorating mental stability shows us that the circumstances will deteriorate until they are beyond his control. Like a Greek tragic hero, he doesnt heed warnings, Willy, the jails are full of fearless characters.

Bentley said that Willy was a passive character; this is true because he never tried to fight the system, he was completely taken in by capitalism and all the values it entails, and was passive towards his fate. On the other hand some critics argue he was passionate about capitalism, There was respect, comradeship and gratitude in it. In my opinion the only truly proactive thing he did, was ironically, to kill himself to give Biff the twenty thousand dollar life insurance. Bentley argues he is too passive to be a tragic hero, but in my opinion his passivity doesnt mean he is not a tragic hero. It is even more tragic that he is drawn passively into his fate, and the tragic outcome wouldnt have had the same impact if he had rebelled against his fate, as he may never have committed suicide.

According to Aristotle, a tragic protagonist experiences a realisation of a truth. Willy experiences self-awareness otherwise he would not have killed himself, he realised that he was a failure, Im fat. Im very foolish. We also see Willys realisation of what destroyed his relationship with Biff during the flashback scene in the hotel. He also realises that Biff still loves him at the end of Act II, in spite of his affair with The Woman, and his phoney dream, and is genuinely astonished, elevated, as he believed he had forfeited Biffs love of him. Miller stated he is given his existence... his fatherhood, for which he has always striven. Some argue that he was too stubborn and blinkered to see the truth, I agree that he is so detached from reality that he cannot accept any challenge to his dignity, and refuses to listen to Biff when he reveals the truth, that he is a dime a dozen. I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman. He still thinks he is successful, and believes that Biff is magnificent. However, I believe that Willy need not realise all his faults and what they stem from, as they are so clear to the audience, and regardless of all the errors he fails to realise, he is still a tragic hero. The play brings the audience both enlightenment and knowledge, which it need not do for the tragic hero. Therefore the fact that he never realises how nave he is, in contrast to Biffs self realisation and his eventual success in seeing past the values Willy had held above everything, throws the tragedy into sharp relief.

Bentley claimed that Death of a Salesman does not arouse terror, only pity, but I disagree, because Willys death was not mere misfortune. The pity the audience feel lies in the fact that he didnt deserve his fate, and he suffered out of all proportion for his flaw, but this is focusing on Willy as an individual, whereas if you interpret Willys death as illustrative of how a system can crush someone then it is terrifying. To an extent, the protagonist has to be an understandable character with which we can identify, to generate terror, and this is certainly true of Willy. The terror is the inevitability of Willys situation, and the realisation that this could happen to anyone who is insecure, and dreams of achievement, given the context of the Depression. I feel terror at Willys deteriorating mental condition brought about by the conflict between his beliefs and the reality of his life. This sense of terror Willy creates makes him a tragic hero.

Aristotle claimed a tragedy should exalt rather than depress. I think Willys suicide fits into this criterion, as it would move an audience, and create a sense of injustice towards capitalism. Miller said that the thrust for freedom is the quality in a tragedy which exalts, which is true of 'Death of a Salesman'. Aristotle claimed that the audience should be left with a sense of catharsis, I think this is true of 'Death of a Salesman', the audience feels cathartic because Biff has finally found himself, I saw the things I love in this world, that Willy is finally free from earthly unhappiness, and that the Loman family are finally free from the anxiety of Willys suicidal tendencies and his fragile mental condition.

To conclude, although Willy is not by any means a classical tragic protagonist, as he lacks a degree of self-awareness, and isnt a man of noble birth, there are many Aristotelian characteristics that he does possess; I view him as a modern tragic figure. Miller has successfully adapted tragedy to fit his society. I dont think Willy is too little and passive to be a tragic hero, and he can be an ordinary Low Man to be influential on an audience. In my opinion Miller has succeeded in creating a character that modern audiences can relate to on many levels, and Willy Loman is truly deserving of the title, and is portrayed in great and sympathetic detail.


Tragedy and The Common Man Arthur Miller

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